Paul Bongiorno
Coalition missing in action over climate change strategy

Of course an Australian prime minister would be at Anzac Cove in Turkey to mark the centenary of the “magnificent defeat at Gallipoli”. It is hardly a distraction to mourn lifetimes lost and to regret bloody follies of the past. But when the flags are raised again and the country gets back to work, the reality will hit. The Abbott government is missing in action when it comes to major challenges facing the nation.

There is a budget to be presented within three weeks that has to juggle stimulus, restraint and political repair. And as the Climate Change Authority (CCA) reminded us on the eve of the PM’s departure, there’s the little matter of playing our part in trying to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.

The one area where the government could claim it is paying full attention is national security. The Anzac commemoration was a golden opportunity for Tony Abbott to play in this space as a statesman. It was no coincidence that in the week leading up to April 25 he shot across to New Zealand. In Prime Minister John Key he has a soulmate. And now with the Kiwis’ tardy commitment to Iraq, someone who is “again working for our values and our interests together”.

Key shares Abbott’s view that defeating the Islamic State in the Middle East is defending his citizens from domestic attack. The arrest of five Islamic terror suspects in Melbourne suggests the real battle for our security is closer to home – an argument that’s a century old. A hint that both prime ministers may think they are on the wrong side of it comes from their insistence that the 400 Anzacs dispatched this week will not play a combat role. 

Labor’s Bill Shorten uses another justification. He says he’s an internationalist. As a member of the world community he believes that Australia has a duty to defend “poor Iraqis from the barbarism of IS”.

As the two prime ministers presided over the opening of a new Australian war memorial in Wellington, protesters called out, “Warmongers.” Unlike in Canberra, the New Zealand opposition does not support the sending of their troops as trainers of the Iraqi army. One hundred will be deployed.

Despite Shorten’s unstinting backing for the “mission creep”, the Australian public is sceptical. The Essential poll has found on balance the public disapproves of sending troops as trainers. The numbers go 44 per cent against, 40 per cent support. Some on the government backbench are similarly sceptical. One says Abbott is hoping his role as a wartime prime minister will shore up his leadership.

If it is a ploy, it doesn’t appear to be working. New Essential and Morgan polls have the government stalled on 47 per cent, behind Labor’s 53 per cent. A more convincing result will be needed to calm fears in the Liberal party room. Marginal members are worried that the electorate has already given up on the government with Abbott at the helm. Talk of a June deadline for his next appointment with destiny has not gone away.

Labor believes government MPs have missed their chance. A strong view in the opposition hierarchy is that Abbott and Joe Hockey are incapable of producing a coherent budget next month. The reason is simple and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen spelt it out at the Press Club. Sure with a touch of hyperbole he said both ran the most dishonest election campaign in Australian history. While that is debatable, what is not are the clear promises to do nothing unpopular in their first term while at the same time restoring the surplus. That has come back to bite them very hard, Bowen said.

Even Glenn Stevens, the governor of the Reserve Bank, is frustrated. In a New York speech he warned that cutting interest rates wasn’t enough to stimulate the economy. The government needed to play its part. Rather than sticking to the mantra “debt is bad, surplus is good”, Stevens said, “boosting sustainable growth from other policies would, of course, be welcome”. The green light to break this key budget repair promise was clear: “The government has little choice but to accept the slower path of deficit reduction over the near term.”

The RBA governor did urge that “over the longer term, hard thinking still needs to occur” to close the persistent gap between spending and revenue. But all the signs are that the government’s hardest thinking is about how to save its leader’s bacon. The treasurer will do nothing to upset voters further. Especially if those voters are wealthier self-funded retirees. Already Liberal MPs are fielding complaints from constituents in this camp. The prime minister’s assurances that there would be no adverse or unpredictable changes to super in this term are being trotted out to calm the horses.

As the government sits on its hands Bill Shorten has outflanked it. He’s released a new policy, he says, to make superannuation fair and sustainable into the future. Moves to remove concessions from 170,000 higher-income earners and retirees will raise $14 billion over the next decade. The government says it is already reviewing retirement incomes in its white paper process. The opposition leader scoffs at that: “We’re governing while they’re reviewing.” Labor says it shows there is a better way to fix the budget than hitting most aged pensioners.

The ALP’s willingness to bite the bullet would in normal circumstances provide the Liberals with cover. But such is the prime minister’s parlous state he clearly doesn’t believe he is in a strong enough position to capitalise on it. Any catch-up will have to come later, apparently when a benign budget restores everyone’s faith in the Coalition.

Doing nothing or not much will hardly inspire confidence especially as the opposition is getting busy in another crucial area. Far from running away from action on climate change, Shorten put it high on the agenda at a party national policy forum at the beginning of the week. He’s against paying big polluters to pollute and all for real action. Renewables have the party’s full support. The government, by contrast, is stonewalling on a compromise over a new target for renewable energy. 

Real pressure is mounting on the Coalition to come up with something meaningful on emissions reduction before the Paris conference at the end of the year. That pressure is coming internationally and domestically. The independent statutory body, the Climate Change Authority, is recommending the nation take to the table a 30 per cent cut by 2025. The authority was established by the Gillard government and saved by Clive Palmer’s senators when he had a few last year. The PUPs, along with senator Ricky Muir, stymied Abbott’s planned destruction of agencies committed to combating global warming. 

Not surprisingly, the CCA is flagging that achieving its recommended target most cost effectively would be by an emissions trading scheme and buying international abatement permits. Both options were rejected until now by the government. No one believes a $2.5 billion Direct Action scheme would come anywhere near delivering the required outcomes.

There is little doubt the more than a decade-long drought in the lead-up to the 2007 election played a significant role in putting climate change front and centre at the poll. Extreme weather events, such as this week’s New South Wales storms, could similarly shift back public opinion. Abbott ruthlessly broke the consensus for significant action in 2010 and shows no inclination for a rethink. Malcolm Turnbull could be a game changer but it’s not clear what price he may have to pay for a comeback. Sceptics and denialists on the party’s right are still worshipping at the altar of black rocks and red rocks. That’s how Barnaby Joyce describes the Coalition’s business plan, allowing people to dig up iron ore and coal.

Tony Abbott proudly lists scrapping the carbon and mining taxes and stopping the boats as the achievements of his first 18 months. The first budget definitely wasn’t and there was further proof of this offered by new health minister Sussan Ley. She is showing up the poor performance of her predecessor in the portfolio mainly by actually speaking to doctors, nurses, and health professionals. Oh, and she listened to the concerns of the backbench. That’s when she found “fairly quickly” that a co-payment wasn’t acceptable. It was a major measure pitched as critical to making Medicare sustainable. It was belatedly abandoned as a bad idea.

Ley has come up with “an appropriate” path; an audit of about 6000 treatments, tests and procedures that make up the Medicare Benefits Schedule. If it works well, she says it will realise savings. Pity no one thought about that much earlier.

Another good idea at the time was Tony Abbott dropping into a pub and sculling a schooner of beer in six seconds. You know you are not travelling well when the achievement draws more criticism than praise. Everything from domestic violence to binge drinking was visited upon the hapless PM.

It’s hard to see what could go wrong in Gallipoli, but Abbott can’t win. He’s damned for what he does and for what he doesn’t.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 25, 2015 as "Coalition missing in action".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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